With the help of a Ford Foundation Dissertation Fellowship and a $28,000 stipend, sociology doctoral student Vanessa Núñez can more fully focus on writing her dissertation about higher education access among undocumented students. Her research focuses on the role faculty and staff play in shaping institutional policies and procedures to support undocumented students.
She’s the first UNLV student to nab the coveted fellowship, designed to help doctoral students – especially students of color – complete their dissertations and leverage diversity to enrich education.
The Role of the Campus Community
Núñez is analyzing years of ethnographic data to: define and identify how institutions function as racialized organizations, how faculty and staff of color support undocumented students, and how faculty and staff define activism and advocacy.
As part of her Ford application, Núñez discussed her pedagogical approach to the classroom at UNLV and her work with marginalized communities. “I’ve always done work around undocumented student access to higher education whether academically from a research perspective or through my past employment.”
As a UNLV graduate assistant, Núñez worked with UNLV’s Service Learning Initiative & Community Engagement in Sociology (SLICES) program in support of racial/ethnic/immigration education and equity. Her sociology master’s thesis centered on the journey of undocumented students at “Desert Rose University” and how they navigated institutions of higher education and benefited from institutional support.
She’s also worked closely with the UNLV Undocunetwork, a student organization to build a network of support for undocumented students. “I’m grateful that its members shared their stories with me. The undocumented student activists at UNLV are the reason I was inspired to do this work,” she said.
In her dissertation, she hopes to highlight institutional activists who advocate for undocumented students. “They’re not doing the work for undocumented students, they’re doing it with them. They’re trying to open doors as much as they can because they know that the institution will not do it,” she said.
A Collaborative Approach
The fellowship is so timely because she’s at the critical analysis and writing phase of her dissertation, Núñez said. The funding will help defray personal expenses, allowing her to fully dedicate time to her research without seeking other employment. “I’ll be able to focus and not have to worry about teaching two other classes.”
But landing the fellowship took tenacity. When her first application didn’t succeed, she was able to build community and tap into networks to improve her application. After three cycles, that supportive community was the charm.
“I’ve been lucky to connect with scholars of color who have supported and helped me. We don’t see ourselves as competition, but as a community. It’s been very intentional – finding community and creating spaces where you feel whole,” Núñez said.
In 2020, her first Ford application received an honorable mention. For this year’s submission, she leaned in to her trusted advisors – sociology chair Robert Futrell and professor Cassaundra Rodriguez, who initially encouraged her to apply and helped her develop documents for the application. They, along with a fellow Ford recipient from the University of California at Santa Cruz, gave helpful feedback that strengthened Núñez’s winning application, one of 36 selected from more than 500 entries across various disciplines. The competition is administered by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine on behalf of the Ford Foundation.
“It’s not lost on me that their care and support have made such a difference. My community of graduate students of color is what’s gotten me through. These (awards) are not won on your own,” said Núñez. Her list of honors also include the 2021 President’s UNLV Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship recipient; 2021 California State University Chancellor’s Doctoral Incentive Program Fellow; and being named the 2021 UNLV Sociology Outstanding Ph.D. Student.
“We are deeply impressed, though not surprised, by Ms. Núñez’s selection as a Ford Foundation Fellow. She’s incredibly smart, focused, and hardworking,” Futrell said.
“We all know that, but it’s very gratifying when such prestigious organizations acknowledge it as well. We thought she was a perfect candidate, and we’re very excited for her.”
Rodriguez said Núñez’s selection wasn’t a surprise. “I had a good feeling she would be successful this round. She is extremely deserving of this very competitive opportunity, and I think the foundation is fortunate to have her as one of its fellows."
Núñez expects to graduate in 2023 and then hopes to land a tenure-track faculty position but is open to conducting research outside higher education or working in student services.
“My focus is not just on R1, or research institutions; it’s on teaching and building with students. I love working with students,” she said.
“I feel like the classroom is a place to make an impact, even if it’s not to create change but to spark important conversations that can change a student’s whole trajectory.”